In April 2017, the hottest new music festival in the Western world collapsed before it could begin, live on social media for all to witness. Now, Fyre Fest is back in the news with the release of two new documentaries (from Netflix and Hulu) on how the event snowballed from a promising idea into a fiasco, in which thousands of young people paid to spend the night in makeshift tents on a gravel lot and the titular company went down in flames, with millions lost and its founder jailed for fraud.
Fyre’s failures and dishonesty are plain to see. But, sensationalism aside, social media marketers and the influencers they work with can learn a few lessons from how it got to the point that it did.
1. Offer people what they already desire
From a certain angle, Fyre Fest’s social media campaign looks like a brilliant success. Thousands of people paid premium prices for a premium experience, ignoring various red flags along the way, just on the basis of the influencers’ endorsement and an especially enticing ad. The “neon orange square” Instagram posts that heralded the festival’s announcement were a clever way to get people to stop scrolling and pay attention, and the ‘supermodel island party’ video that they linked to was a perfect bit of FOMO-bait that immediately made the festival a top trending story.
The festival was also an ideal branding opportunity for the launch of the Fyre app, which was built on the idea of circumventing the booking industry to directly access high-value entertainers. Unfortunately, the company’s impatience ensured that this potential was never realized.
2. Offer more than hype
Jerry Media, the marketing agency hired by Fyre to promote the festival, was never a bastion of integrity. Their online following is based largely on content scavenged from creators and monetized, making them an oddly perfect fit to sell an event that didn’t exist. Regardless, they made several mistakes which allowed Fyre to hide the reality of the situation behind an alluring façade – making the inevitable crash all the bigger.
As we now know, Fyre had put the cart before the horse by enlisting influencers to create a vision of an escapist dream before they knew if it could become reality. This forced them to struggle against obstacles of time, money, and geography to deliver on their promise. Jerry Media could see the signs of their misjudgment better and sooner than anyone, but chose to accept Fyre’s claims despite all evidence against them. That was mistake one.
Another mistake was not instructing the influencers they hired to disclose that their post was an ad. In the US, marketers are legally required to do this (using tags like #ad or #sponsored) but have often failed to, a practice for which some (including Jerry Media) have recently faced lawsuits and crackdowns by the Federal Trade Commission. Even where it isn’t required, disclosure is good practice. People generally don’t mind being advertised to, but they don’t like feeling tricked.
Finally, when word got out about Fyre’s troubles and deceit, Jerry Media fought back with the bluntest tools in its arsenal. Rather than engage the future attendees in conversation, they began deleting negative comments, followed by suspending accounts of users who dared to bring up any sensitive topics. It shouldn’t have to be said that this was a failure of crisis response, with the power to shift many customers’ allegiance from the promoters to their critics.
3. Respect your followers
People bought tickets to the Fyre Festival expecting to see Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner there, but they didn’t even get company spokesman Ja Rule. The influencers who took a paycheck to pretend they were personally excited about the event (even when they had no plans to attend) were perceived by many fans as disrespectful. Didn’t somebody once say “with great influence over others, comes great responsibility not to betray their trust”?
It all raises the question of whether influencers should be expected to choose their endorsements carefully and with some measure of authenticity, or if they’re just “clothes hangers”, as one person in Hulu’s documentary describes fashion models.
Some writers have pointed out that this is mainly a problem among macro-influencers, those with millions of followers whom fans are more likely to see as untouchable. Fyre paid premiums to these online celebrities to emphasize the “luxury” aspect of their brand, which they might have pulled off if they could have delivered a corresponding luxury experience. Instead, the festival has raised awareness among the social media generation of the hollowness of celebrity endorsements. And in doing so, it’s shifted marketer attention towards micro-influencers who have more of a stake in what they promote. It may just be better this way.